Friday, October 9, 2009

Machine Rule

In his just-released book, Delete, author Viktor Mayer-Schonberger explores the surprising phenomenon of perfect recall in the digital age and makes a strong case for reintroducing the capacity to forget.

To be sure, Mayer-Schonberger isn't suggesting that all of the bits and bytes about us be subject to erasure. But he is one of the first privacy advocates to assert that "the balance between what we remember and what we forget has been unsettled" by the always-on, data-hungry machines we have created to help us keep track of each other. But much information, Mayer-Schonberger asserts, is better left ungathered—or, at the very least, allowed to escape digital eternity. "We need to be able to delete," he says. Part of being human is to consistently re-contextualize the past as it relates to the present; machines rob us of that choice.

Cause Global caught up with Mayer-Schonberger recently to talk about how unbridled digital recall is reshaping society and human behavior. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation:

A number of books have been published recently about the limitations of human memory, including Total Recall: How the E-memory Revolution will Change Everything by Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell. But you argue in your book, Delete, that the capacity to forget serves a human purpose and must be integrated into our data-rich culture. You say our personal freedoms are at risk.

I’ve been interested in privacy for better part of the last two decades, and have been working on both sides of the Atlantic on information privacy issues. Privacy always has been dear to me, and this culture's perfect recall problem became clear to me when I started thinking about our digital world’s ability to record a lot more data than the analog world. The threat that eminates from this problem is not just of a privacy nature, but there is another type of danger that is at least as threatening and as problematic. Humans yearn to remember, although they mostly forget. We've developed tools to lighten this biological limitation, like books and videos, to help us remember things and they've proven to be extremely helpful to us. But until a few decades ago, these tools did not unsettle the balance between remembering and forgetting. To remember was the exception; to forget, the default. In the digital age, this balance has been altered fundamentally. Today, forgetting has become costly and difficult, while remembering is inexpensive and easy. With the help of digital tools we—individually and as a society—have begun to unlearn forgetting, to erase from our daily practices one of the most fundamental behavioral mechanisms of humankind.

We're forgetting how to forget?

It’s becoming real for most of us extremely quickly. Maybe 20 years ago or so, if a politician made a gaffe on live TV, it was played over and over again and we laughed and it ruined a political career. These days, it's not just public officials who might experience this. It's pretty much everybody now. Just consider this: in 2007, two out of three young Americans created or uploaded digital content onto the Internet or to some social networking site. So two out of three people partook in the weaving of this thick digital blanket and this, for many, was able to impede or destroy our careers. You have more and more of these examples coming up as YouTube and many other portals function as hubs, where you can upload everybody else's information, gaffes and outtakes and laugh about them. I’m sure you’ve seen or heard of
the South Korean person who has been laughed at and criticized hundreds of thousands of times online because her dog pooped on the subway and it was recorded on YouTube.

This kind of permanent memory will lead to bullying?

It has already for some people, but more troubling is how the fear of such behaviors might be influencing large numbers of people in society. It would be horrible if we were to stop expressing ourselves because we start fearing that 20 years from now, or sooner, our utterances will be held against us. What does this do to free speech? Our democracy, our nation, our culture, will be much poorer and much more impoverished. So I'm suggesting that we create new legal and social tools not to encourage self-censorship, but instead create ways of choosing how long we want to preserve the information we put online. Inherent in this, of course, is an acknowledgment that some kinds of information loses validity over time, and therefore it needs to be discarded—or labeled, at least, as being past its expiry date.

This suggests that the facts don't always serve us. Why is the capacity to forget an advantage?

Researchers have found that perfect human memory is actually not an advantage but a disadvantage, because it disables people from deciding, over time, to move on. Perfect recall locks and anchors everything that has ever happened to the present. People who cannot forget feel they are always tethered to the past; they remember all of the wrong decisions they made in the past, which makes them afraid to decide in the present. Perfect digital memory, then, not only creates a power imbalance between the past and the present but impedes on our ability to decide and act quickly in the present.

Further, it's about information control. Perfect digital recall gives us no choice or control over how accessible our information is, or how long-lived it is in the public sphere. Much of what is online about us at any given time is accessible to anyone, will live forever, and occur out of context. In the past, we could control who 'saw' us and when and under what circumstances. We had a better chance of being able to explain.

Moreover, human remembering has not been a process of mechanistically retrieving facts from our past, but rather, as Daniel Schacter so eloquently argued, the constant reconstruction of our past based on the present. In other words, the past as we remember it is constantly evolving. The past captured in digital memory is constant, frozen in time. It is likely these two visions will clash, yet neither is an accurate and complete depiction of what or who we are.

What can we do about it?

It’s a collective action problem; my 'expiration date' proposal is meant to say there is a way we can start to introduce some selective forgetting into our digital world. We can start a movement by introducing new technologies. A number of companies, from Microsoft to, all offer the ability to forget, to allow expiration dates on certain kinds of data. In fact, Yahoo and Microsoft have announced they will delete some things after nine months so they will have selective forgetting implemented.

Have you gotten any pushback on the book?

Most pushback has come from people who run the large search engines. Others, of course, have said it is ridiculous not to be able to delete. Other pushback comes from people who accuse me of wanting to destroy archives and libraries. That is not at all what I want to do. I don't want forced forgetting. I want us, as a society and as individuals, to be able to choose what to remember. If nothing is done—if the status quo persists—we will lose a lot of the democratic and open, robust debate we have in society. That would be horrible. Equally horrible would be a world in which we become so locked to the past that we become frozen in the present, afraid to take risks and innovate, and to simply live for the moment.

—By Marcia Stepanek

(Photo, top, by Peeter Viisimaa for
(Photo, middle, of Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, courtesy of Princeton Press)

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